Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Plainview: Jon Hassler’s “the village in the corn” June 15, 2022

A portion of the Plainview mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

LAND. PEOPLE. ARTS. COMMUNITY. Those words theme a public mural stretching across the Plainview Area Community and Youth Center in the heart of this southeastern Minnesota small town.

The mural graces a wall of the community center, across the street from the former Jon Hassler Theater. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I remember the mural from my last visit here in 2013. I appreciate this public art now as much as I did then, for art can reveal much about a place.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, now closed. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2013)

While Plainview has lost some of its “arts” character with closure of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, it will always claim title (along with Staples) as the boyhood home (s) of noted Minnesota writer Jon Hassler. He moved to Plainview with his parents at the age of 10, remaining there until shortly after his 1951 high school graduation.

Hassler’s Grand Opening is based on Plainview.

Hassler, one of Minnesota’s most-beloved authors, focused his fiction on small town life. That includes Grand Opening, a novel based on Plainview. As in real life, the main character’s parents buy a run-down grocery store in rural Minnesota.

Source: Afton Press

While I have not yet read Grand Opening, I just finished Days Like Smoke, A Minnesota Boyhood. This is Hassler’s memoir, a manuscript published by Afton Press in 2021, many years after the author’s 2008 death. Edited by friend Will Weaver, another well-known Minnesota writer, this slim volume offers insights into Plainview, into Hassler’s experiences there and how that shaped his writing. He credits his parents’ Red Owl Grocery Store as the training grounds for his writing, the place where he acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist. In that grocery store, Hassler stocked shelves, ground coffee, interacted with and observed customers, and more.

The land (farming) is integral to the economy of Plainview, which is surrounded by corn and soybean fields. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This sentence in Hassler’s memoir is so telling of the influence Plainview had on his writing: I see the villagers passing along the checkout counter like the cast of characters they eventually turned out to be in my novel about this village in the corn. I love that phrase, “village in the corn,” for it fits agriculturally-based Plainview. The community is home to food processors, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and Lakeside Foods, and celebrates Corn on the Cob Days each summer. Farming centers the local economy.

Two of the people featured on the mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

It’s the people, though, including the characters, who truly define community. And Hassler shares plenty from Plainview, where he lived across from the stockyards for awhile, tried to derail a train, played high school football for the Gophers, watched endless movies at the Gem Theater, bloodied the nose of a third grader, sat at the bedside of his dying 11-year-old friend, biked to the bluffs along the Whitewater River to camp and fish, served as an altar boy…

The mural includes a faith-based dedication to Pauline Redmond. She co-owned the North Country Anvil Magazine/Anvil Press with her husband, Jack Miller. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In his memoir, Hassler remembers St. Joachim’s Catholic Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church standing as sentinels of the soul at opposite ends of Main Street. That’s such an insightful visual. Hassler valued his Catholic upbringing and faith throughout his life. But he also admits in his memoir to the strong current of religious animosity running under the surface of daily life in the village of my youth between Catholics and Lutherans. This comes as no surprise to me, growing up in rural Minnesota with the same denominational tension.

People also define place as noted on the mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

It was that undercurrent—specifically the defeat of Hassler’s father in a school board election—which ultimately caused Hassler’s parents to leave Plainview and return to Staples. He writes: I, newly graduated from high school, loved Plainview too dearly to follow them.

The interior entrance to the Jon Hassler Theater, photographed during a 2013 visit to Plainview. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2013)

Hassler’s love for Plainview endured, long after he left to attend college, then to teach, then to write and then to retire in 1997 after 17 years as writer-in-residence at Saint John’s University. Visit Plainview today and you get a strong sense of the place that shaped this writer. While businesses and people have come and gone, at its core, this remains “the village in the corn.”

TELL ME: Have you read any of Jon Hassler’s 12 novels or his nonfiction? I’d love to hear your take on his writing and what books you recommend.

Please check back for more posts from Plainview next week. Be sure to read my previous posts on Plainview published this week.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I discover Plainview & then the curtain falls November 15, 2013

A snippet of Plainview's downtown.

A snippet of Plainview’s downtown.

ACT I:

It’s not like I live a great distance (60 miles) from Plainview, home of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center. But I’d never been to this rural town 20 miles northeast of Rochester until recently. A wrong turn on a Sunday afternoon drive led my husband and me into this Wabasha County community of some 3,300.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center.

And there we discovered the old farm implement dealership building turned arts center—complete with theater, art gallery, bookstore and writers’ retreat center.

Dean Harrington showed me copies of Green Blade, the annual literary journal produced by writers who gather here.

Dean Harrington showed me copies of Green Blade, the annual literary journal produced by writers who gather here.

We met Dean Harrington, local banker, arts center enthusiast and CEO of the Rural America Arts Partnership, who was manning the front desk during the afternoon production of Ole & Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary & Vow Renewal. I swear Harrington could have been noted Minnesota author and former Plainview resident Jon Hassler’s twin right down to his sweater vest.

As close as I got to the theater.

As close as I got to the theater.

I wished right then and there that I was seated in the theater, belly laughing at/with Ole and Lena. But it was near intermission, much too late to join the audience.

Words & Afterwords Book Store sells ne

Words & Afterwords Book Store features more than 4,000 used and selected new titles.

Instead, I settled for poking about the gallery and bookshop and snapping a few photos and thinking, how grand to have a place like this in Plainview that embraces the arts. A return trip for a more in-depth look at this community and theater is definitely needed. Maybe next time with play tickets in hand.

ACT II:

I’ve had the above ACT I in my draft posts for a few weeks. I never expected to be penning an ACT II. But in a story reported Thursday on Minnesota Public Radio (quoting the Rochester Post-Bulletin), I learned that the Jon Hassler Theater is closing at the end of 2014. I didn’t see that coming. Dean Harrington offered no hint of the theater’s tenuous situation when we spoke briefly a few weeks ago.

But apparently the audience just isn’t there to continue supporting a theater in Plainview. Plans are to keep the self-supporting bookstore, the art gallery and the writer’s retreat open.

Just two days ago I received an email from the Jon Hassler Theater inviting me to a reading and Q & A by Northfield writer Scott Dominic Carpenter, author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth. Carpenter will be the Third Wednesdays guest reader at 7 p.m. on November 20.

And now this, this news about the theater’s closing comes. Before I’ve even seen the curtain rise in the Jon Hassler Theater, I’ve seen it fall. Anytime a rural community loses local access to the arts, it’s not good.

I’m fortunate to live in a community with a strong theater presence (Paradise Community Theatre and The Merlin Players) at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. I don’t have to, and don’t want to, drive to the Cities to see great theater. Yet, I know many local residents who’ve never set foot inside the Paradise, but who regularly travel to the Cities for their arts fix. It’s this type of ambivalence and lack of local support, in my opinion, that lead to an outstate theater’s demise.

Apparently the audience numbers weren’t there in Plainview and now this small town is losing its theater.

ACT III: 

Here are a few more photos of that inviting bookstore inside the Rural America Arts Center and of downtown Plainview.

Theater books for sale.

Theater books for sale.

A cozy bookstore nook.

A cozy bookstore nook.

Loved this bookstore signage by the coffee pot up front.

Loved this bookstore signage by the coffee pot up front.

Across the street from the arts center.

Across the street from the arts center.

Meaningful mural details.

Meaningful mural details.

The back of Auto Value, across the street also from the arts center.

The back of Auto Value. If you walk up the sidewalk, cross the street and go left, you will find the arts center.

A birth announcement in the front window of a downtown business, converted to black-and-white so it's readable.

A birth announcement in the front window of a downtown business, edited to photocopy black-and-white so it’s readable.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling